Sometimes intentions can feel like a stretch

The Monitor's language columnist pays attention to a group of words rooted in the idea of stretching out toward something.

I haven't managed to organize a fall foliage expedition this year. But just in the neighborhood I've seen some spectacular color, sometimes in unlikely places. The parking lot of my local supermarket isn't exactly a tour-bus destination. The little trees there, though, were a brilliant red when I passed by the other day. And they were ready to share their beauty with me and anyone else.

If trees were people, most of them, I think, would be extroverts. After all, their branches reach up and out to the world. Even as we are paying attention to the trees at this time of year, the trees, it may be credibly argued, are attending to us.

That observation may be a little too anthropomorphic for you. But attend is one of a number of English words with a common Latin root connected with the idea of stretching out toward someone or something.

To attend to someone comes from the Latin particle ad- meaning "to" plus tendere meaning "to stretch." The image this immediately suggested was of an "attentive" waiter at a sidewalk cafe who stretches over the heads of the other patrons to deliver your little cup of hot chocolate or whatever on a tray.

But, as the Online Etymology Dictionary explains, "The notion is of 'stretching' one's mind toward something." Time and again we see how language turns to words for concrete actions, often of the human body, to express actions of the mind.

Attentive has an (arguably more concise) older form, "attent." Often marked "archaic" or "obsolete," it lives on in Shakespeare and the Bible: "[L]et thine ears be attent unto the prayer that is made in this place" (II Chron. 6:40, King James Version).

Now that I know the etymology involved, I'm left with a mental image of the divine ears waggling like those of a rabbit, or maybe whirring and buzzing like a satellite dish being maneuvered into position just so.

Intend is another word in this family, with a similar background suggesting the direction of mental energies to a purpose. Ditto intent, both as an adjective ("intent on finishing early") or a noun ("assault with intent to kill") and intention. The differences in meaning between the two nouns are subtle. Intention sounds more diffuse and generalized: "My intention was to get to the gym early." Intent often appears in legal and contexts. But shorter and punchier, intent sounds more, well, intense.

Intense is also in this family, I was surprised to find. Intensity seems to suggest compactness, packing a lot of action, emotion, or whatever into a short time ("a really intense discussion").

But etymologically speaking, intense is not about compacting but stretching out. Its literal meaning is "high strung" – an idiom borrowed from the tuning of stringed instruments. The image is of a string tuned tighter and tighter until – pop! – it breaks. "Tending to be very nervous and easily excited" is how the American Heritage Dictionary explains it.

"Tightly wound" is a newer variation. Urban­dictionary.com defines it as meaning "chronically tense, unable to relax, highly reactive." But whereas "high-strung" people tend to feel a need to go lie down, "tightly wound" people tend to be seen as candidates for anger-management class.

Oops, note that tend. It, too, is part of this same group of words. In this instance the Latin root could be seen as signifying a "leaning" or an "inclination."

Now that I've discovered this group of words, I know I'll see them everywhere. And that's no stretch.

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